20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 56

Natural forces at work

D. J. Taylor

AFTER THE PLAGUE by T. C. Boyle Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 303, ISBN 0747553270 Love of Life', perhaps the best short story Jack London ever wrote, is set in the arctic wilderness of northern Canada. Here a wandering gold prospector, half-dead from cold and starvation, is crawling to apparent safety — a ship moored in a distant bay — over a descending mountain track. Behind him crawls a wolf. Eventually the prospector makes it to the boat, but not before an epic struggle with the wolf, which ends with him tearing the creature's throat out with his teeth. At first glance the connection between London and the familiar band of West Coast crazies and egodementoids that populate these stories by T. C. Boyle may not seem particularly strong, but what distinguishes the 16 pieces in After the Plague is a kind of furims de., mentalism, a rawness of motive and response that would not be out of place in a world of clanking pack-ice and slavering lupine breath.

Twenty years ago T. C. Boyle (he was plain 'T. Corraghessan Boyle' in those days) was known as the author of Water Music, a sophisticated exercise in historical pastiche, in this case set in the 18th century, modish to the point of no return and bristling with thinly disguised academic purpose. Two decades later, our man would seem to have reinvented himself as just another of those hard-boiled Yankee grotesquerie-mongers, were it not for this steady, elemental pulse. 'She Wasn't Soft' is a good example of Boyle's technique. A hard-as-nails female triathlete (cycling/

swimming/ running) is desperate to win an event featuring her arch-rival. Her no-good surf-bum boyfriend, chastened by the knowledge that he has behaved badly to her, resolves to make amends by spiking a cup of Gatorade which he plans to offer the rival from the crowd as she reaches the finishing straight. Against expectations it is his girlfriend rather than the other girl who emerges in pole position. Still, though, he cannot stop himself from pressing the dissolved barbiturates into her outstretched hand.

Somehow the psychological extremism of a story like 'She Wasn't Soft' rings true. Its echo can be heard half a dozen times in the surrounding pages. In 'Friendly Skies' a woman on a plane menaced by a loudmouthed drunk looks for salvation from the charming stranger at her side only for everything to go badly wrong. In 'Terminal Dust', which even has a Londonesque Alaskan setting, a bar-owner, balked of his choice in a charity dating extravaganza, takes his revenge on the unemployed drunk who mysteriously outbids him. 'The Love of My Life' features a pair of enraptured college sweethearts whose female half falls pregnant. Unable to cope with the consequences, the girl gives birth in secret and the couple abandon the baby (He never gave a thought to what lay discarded in the Dumpster out back, itself wrapped in plastic, so much meat, so much cold meat.') There is quite a lot about babies in After the Plague. 'Killing Babies' stars a twentysomething ne'er-do-well who ends up working in an abortion clinic (here the primitive climax comes when, sympathising with one of the whey-faced teenage visitors, he decides to attack an officious Pro-Life protester at the gate). The title story, too, in which a handful of survivors wander around an America whose population has been reduced to thousands by an Ebola epidemic, is naturally concerned with keeping the species going. (`After the Plague' is that odd thing, a future shock tale that manages to be amusing.) Occasionally Boyle over-schematises things: 'The Black and White Sisters', for instance, about a couple of wealthy middle-aged women whose entire existence is lived according to a meticulous parti-colour code, is an amusing conceit without much emotional ballast to back it, while the oppositions of `Achates McNeil', in which a college student discovers that his hated celebrity author dad is booked to give a reading on campus, are a bit too clear-cut for comfort. Even here, though, the narrative pull is unrelenting, and made all the more startling by its backdrop of expensive houses and modern American lifestyles. In a world of arctic tundras and baying wolves, London-style determinism can sometimes seem merely routine. To find naturalism — here defined as unappeasable natural forces working themselves out — at large in the playgrounds of the West is genuinely shocking.